The Ownership Class

At the very top of the economic system of the capitalist world is the ownership class. These are the family fortunes that go back generations. The families that through unimaginably complex ownership structures own and control virtually all of the essential resources of the country. Land, housing, mineral rights, water rights, pharmaceuticals, food, energy and the media through which virtually all our information comes, are all effectively owned and controlled by these few. 

This class comprises everyone who is born into a family whose money is not derived from a job, profession or a business that they are personally involved in. They do not depend on their labor or their skills or their brainpower for their living, bur receive income that is theirs because of the circumstances of their birth. 

This group is itself stratified. At the very bottom are the members of the farther reaches of such families, who simply get a monthly check and take no other part in the system. Even though these people did nothing themselves to deserve their good fortune, many of them do great social good with their money. It should not be imagined that all the members of the ownership class are concerned only for their own benefit; on the contrary, most of them are charming and generous people who support all kinds of good causes. 

The income of those at or near the top is derived from passive investments that are virtually immune to economic conditions. While much of their money is in the form of stock and shares, a stock market crash is to them a golden opportunity to increase their wealth. The value of stocks is of no concern to someone who does not need to sell their holdings. People who have sufficient funds to ride out the storm can buy shares at rock bottom prices, then wait until the value climbs back again, which historically it always has. Note the qualification: the fact that something has always happened to date does not mean that it will never happen. In fact I will show that it is not only possible that this edifice will eventually fail completely, but certain. The only question is how soon and how fast.

This situation has come about because of the long term effects of two social customs: inheritance and primogeniture. Primogeniture is the custom in the modern capitalist world for the great fortunes to be passed down intact to a single individual in each generation, usually the oldest male. At different times inheritance taxes have taken a bite, but this is largely avoided at the very top level by trusts and offshore holdings and all the tricks of the financial services industry. The result has been that over the last 200 years or so the wealth of the country has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

At the same time it has become steadily more opaque. One feature of people at this level is that they are pathologically secretive about their wealth. They do not reveal the full extent of it even to their closest family members. Outside of the boardroom and private offices, money is simply never discussed. This makes it very difficult to assess the true seriousness of the issue; whatever wealth these people are known to possess, it is absolutely certain that they in fact own many times more. Part of the difficulty is that their wealth is highly diversified, and they plan for the long term. The annual yields from their holdings are so large that there is absolutely no chance that they will run short of money (as long as the system itself remains in place, that is.) They are therefore willing to simply sit on unused assets, knowing that one day they will benefit their descendants. In the case of land holdings this has dire social consequences. Vast amounts of land are owned by people who have never even set foot there, yet they have absolute control over what happens to it. In many cases it is not economically worthwhile for them to develop land, so it is kept from use by anyone at all. It cannot be used for growing food, or for meeting housing needs; it simply sits idle. The same principle applies to housing. 

There was a time when it was relatively easy to identify the ownership class; they were the ones with fine carriages and large estates and many retainers. Over the years they have used their money to insulate themselves, to the extent that they are now all but impossible to identify. Similarly over the years they have learned to conceal the size and sources of their wealth. A significant portion of their income is spent on armies of accountants and lawyers whose main purpose is to obscure the details of what they own and control. 

To the extent that they are visible at all it is in the role of philanthropists and supporters of fine things like symphonies and the ballet. Their friends and acquaintances think they are fine people. They think of themselves as virtuous and even often try to use their income in helpful and constructive ways. This simply shows that individual virtue can exist even in a corrupt system. It does not in any way justify the mechanisms by which they have the wealth to be able to be so generous with. 

If you seek actual documentary material on this level of our society, I highly recommend two movies by Jamie Johnson, a young member of the Johnson and Johnson family. They are called Born Rich and The One Percent, and both can be found complete on YouTube. He interviews and documents the lifestyles of many of his friends (who I must imagine by now must be his former friends), also the children of Old Money. The level of self entitlement of these people who had their entire life presented to them on a platter, who have had to deal nothing whatever to actually deserve their station in life, is truly astonishing.